Rally Continues, Tens of Thousands to March on Gush Katif

After a large rally in Sderot Tuesday night, protesters have reached the town of Ofakim, which will be a launching point for the march on Gush Katif following a rally on Wednesday evening.

Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu and Ezra HaLevi , | updated: 10:35

Leaders of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza (Yesha) have instructed activists to "attempt to reach Gush Katif" after the Ofakim rally, scheduled for 6:00 PM Wednesday. Yesha leaders again emphasized not to confront soldiers and police.

According to the Yesha Council which is organizing the protests, 35,000 people attended the rally in the western Negev town of Sderot Tuesday night, with supporters continuing to arrive late into the night - many by foot. Protesters then continued to the town of Ofakim, where organizers say 60,000 protesters are awaiting a rally to take place Wednesday night - followed by a planned march toward Gush Katif.

Among those who addressed the crowds in Sderot were former Minister Natan Sharansky, hareidi-religious former MK Rabbi Menachem Porush and MKs Effie Eitam (National Union) and Dr. Uzi Landau (Likud). Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also delivered a speech.

"Ariel Sharon, this is the last prayer. Don't send your hand against Gush Katif," Eitam said. The elderly Rabbi Porush, father of MK Meir Porush (UTJ), told the rally, "Expelling Jews from Gush Katif is the same as expelling us."

Sharansky, who moved to Israel after years of imprisonment in Siberia under the former Soviet dictatorship, said he was alarmed at the Sharon government's tactics used to pass the expulsion bill and its attempts to silence opposition.
Protesters in Sderot, with a sign quoting a classic Israeli song - 'The Land is My Land'

MK Ayoub Kara (Likud), a Druze member of the Knesset, arrived in Sderot to participate in the rally, and expressed concern over the suppression of democracy as well. He told Arutz-7: "I came here to identify with the protesters and to help preserve Israeli democracy, which is in grave danger."

"The checkpoints and demands that citizens show their identity cards in order to pass remind me of darker days this nation has faced," Kara said. "This Prime Minister uses the police and military so aggressively in order to enforce his personal doctrine. I believe, though, that justice and faith will win by way of this public gathered here."

The father of Ella Abukasis, the teenage girl who was killed by a Kassam rocket that hit her home in Sderot, also addressed the crowd, angrily pointing a finger at the government.

"Why are there 30,000 soldiers and police here today to make sure good Jews don't walk to Gush Katif?" Abukasis boomed. "Where were they when my daughter was killed? Where are they when murderers fire rockets at us daily?"

A large sign welcoming the protestors at the entrance to the city of Sderot read, 'Our Town is Your Town.' At least 500 Sderot residents opened their homes to the rally attendees, offering lodging and refreshments - some issuing loud invitations from their baloconies. Other families prepared large pots of food earlier in the day, to have it ready to offer to the protestors.
"Welcome to Sderot" sign adorned with orange ribbons - the symbol of the anti-expulsion movement.

Police initially claimed that only 15,000 people attended the rally, but later raised the estimate to 25,000. An estimated count of buses and cars at the rally indicated that the vehicles brought at least 30,000, and thousands arrived by public bus. Many others arrived earlier in the day, fearing police would once again block buses from reaching the event.

Thousands of IDF troops blocked fields and roads leading towards Gush Katif, suspecting protesters would use the proximity of the rally to enter the area, which has been closed to non-residents. Thirty people were arrested, though hundreds succeeded in skirting troops and entering the threatened communities.

Arab terrorists fired three Kassam rockets in an attempt to attack the crowd in Sderot. One fell in an open field between Gaza and the town and two others misfired and landed in Palestinian Authority (PA)-controlled Beit Hanoun, killing the child of a former PA officer and wounding eight other people.

Police praised the Yesha Council for maintaining order in Sderot and fulfilling promises to disperse and move to Ofakim.

Rally organizers praised the residents and municipality of the development town of Ofakim for their hospitality Wednesday. The city’s residents are largely Sephardic immigrants from north African countries. “The spirit of our [biblical] forefather Abraham’s hospitality pervades this place,” said Rabbi Chaim Druckman.

“From the moment I woke and went out to the street, every single resident offered me assistance, offered a cup of coffee – this is Israeli society. Contrary to the animosity between the settlement movement and the development towns fabricated in the media, we were hugged and received with warmth here,” said Yesha Council’s Pinchas Wallerstein.

Ofakim mayor Avi Asraf said that the moment he received word that the marchers wished to stop in Ofakim he responded positively. “It was clear to me that we would host them and do anything for them. Without any connection to political philosophy – we support you and the residents of Gush Katif…To uproot them is to uproot us.”